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Michael Cherniavsky

Posted: Sun Sep 16, 2012 10:31 pm
by geoffreycannon
Geoffrey Cannon. Peele A 1951-1958
History Grecians. Balliol, Oxford

I am a new boy - second contribution. Written with a sense of due diffidence. In general I am surprised that there is not a lot of continuous contribution within this truly wonderful website, on specific teachers (masters as we called them then). I came across CH Forum last week because I was revising a riff of mine about my contribution to preventing World War III. This involved a bunch of us in the Signals who sabotaged Corps Field Days by cutting all communications other than shouts, so as to demoralise young keen officer material who dreamed of bayoneting Johnny Gyppo, while shooting blanks at 2 o'clock bushy-topped trees. This prompted me to google 'Kirby biology master Christ's Hospital' (because Uncle Bill was in charge of the Signals) and lo!

I agree that it's a toss-up between focusing contributions on themes (like in the above case something like 'Bolshie Pranks') and on people. And all the great long-lasting masters were surely inseparable from their times and circumstances. For instance, the CH academic tradition of giving precedence to boys whose masters reckoned them for Oxford or Cambridge scholarships, installed at least as far back as the time of Coleridge, Lamb and Leigh Hunt, was still dominant in the 1950s. A place? Pish! A redbrick university? Pah!

Come the times, come the man, and reasons that Cherny was so successful, is that he inherited the History department from Daddy Roberts who died very young, he had I guess come to CH because like Daddy he was a mediaevalist, and also because, himself having been a top Brackenbury scholar at Balliol, he had a Big In with the dons there, including Old Blue Russell Meiggs, and also the fellow mediaevalist Dick Southern who had been his Oxford tutor, as had Christopher Hill. It was surely much easier to get a scholarship to your master's old college, and in this case easier yet if your special subject was mediaeval history (in our case narrowed down to between the 11th and 14th centuries) because the dons who marked candidates' papers must have been bored by so many essays on modern history. But 'Assess the impact of Frederick II ("Stupor Mundi") Hohenstaufen on the Crusading movement' - they loved that kind of stuff.

The other factor, in my day, was that candidates could go straight from state O levels, to Oxford or Cambridge scholarship examinations. The two ancient universities ran their own examination systems in those days, so you could skip A levels. Also - and Cherny was a a genius at this - papers, including those he set us, were not marked by numbers, but by Greek letters. This was and is a totally different system. Thus you could get pure beta, say, but you could also get alpha double minus, or more ingenious, beta plus query plus, or even beta minus query query alpha. You could even get alpha query brackets gamma. Plus to get up to scholarship standard you simply had to show enough alpha. You could do even if for any one subject paper, where you were asked to answer four questions, you answered two up to alpha standard with no beta, answered one other with an audacious squib, and never attempted a fourth question. That's to say, the Greek letter system favoured audacity.

Cherny understood this. As soon as after O Levels we opted for and were accepted in his class, he taught us and treated us as adults. His teaching was far superior to anything I came across when at Oxford. Nor did he teach us only history. The four scholarship papers were English and mediaeval history, and then one paper more or less corresponding to the Oxford PPE 'modern greats' field, and the other where you spent three hours writing an essay maybe on one word, like say 'Friendship', or on a saying like 'He who is tired of London is tired of life'. Cherny focused us on philosophy and politics, and his reading list reflected his own training and ideology. He roped in Oxford dons as our external examiners. We knew he had travelled to London to stand in Trafalgar Square and protest against Suez. A tricky situation was somehow narrowly averted when the headmaster CME Seaman, who taught Grecians Div, discovered that Alan Ryan (later Master of University College, Oxford), Stuart Holland (later a Labour shadow minister and a distinguished economist) and I, were all bringing 'Language, Truth and Logic' into our free periods with Cherny.

I have a picture taken outside the Dominions Library in the summer term of I guess 1958, which Cherny himself reproduced in one of his 'Short Pieces' published privately much later. 'In the group' he said 'are a future member of parliament, fellow of a college, headmaster, and editor of a mass-circulation weekly'. I was the editor. I think the headmaster was Stallard of Peele B, whose trick was to take a run (having tucked his coat into his belt) and perform complete front somersaults on the way back from dining hall, his head an inch from the asphalt as he revolved. Others in the picture included George Cotton of my house Peele A, Michael Skinner who became a lawyer in Australia, and Robert Fyson who became one of the leaders of the CND movement.

One contributor has said that Cherny had a lisp. Not exactly, it was more a singular intonation with very soft Rs, which somehow came across as conspiratorial - he and we were in this together. He gave one-on-one tutorials in his Barnes study, and sometimes offered sherry. He must have sensed how loyal we were to him. On one occasion he was going through one of my essays and pointed to a faint small round pink stain and looked up and in a tone of mild enquiry not expecting an answer, said 'wine?' It's not the case that Cherny made us think. In the original sense of education, he enabled us to realise that we could think, and reflect, on any aspect of life and society. He did this in part by being gently and tolerantly subversive, but there was much more to him than that, best evoked not by generalisations but by stories. Let's be having them!

In 1980 I think it was, I was coming back to London through Geneva airport, and on the way to customs glanced at one of those panorama advertisements for banks in the wall, and immediately saw Cherny, among a photograph of a great crowd of hundreds of people being projected as prosperous. It was impossible to miss him, for anybody who had known him, for his head was almost twice the size of all the others. Then I knew it had taken me over 20 years to realise that my sense of Cherny was - and is - one of love. Ten years after that, at his 70th birthday celebration in London held soon before he died, which Robert Fyson with others organised, it was obvious that my feeling was shared by many others who Cherny taught, touched and inspired.

Re: Michael Cherniavsky

Posted: Mon Sep 17, 2012 5:33 pm
by michael scuffil
Those of you who do not know will not be surprised to learn that our correspondent Geoffrey Cannon once edited (and in my opinion improved) one of our major intellectual journals, of blessed memory, but unfortunately now deceased.

But back to Chern. He wrote an article in The Blue sometime in the 1970s or 80s in which he said two things of interest. One was that he considered Mrs Johnson to have been the most successful of the Senior Officers during his time, and the other was that the real revolution of the Seaman years was not the introduction of senior and junior houses, but the expansion of the Grecians to take account of the fact that there were more universities than just Oxford and Cambridge. He went on to say that he himself had first been taken on to teach the new form that had been created in what must have been an early stage (still in Flecker's time) of this expansion, which he curiously referred to as 'Jogger Deps' (presumably Geogger Deps). This was basically what became known as 'Modern Deps/Grecians', but clearly his brilliance as a medieval historian was soon recognized, as certainly by the time I arrived, he had nothing to do with teaching modern history at Grecians level.

There is a story which I may have told in this forum, but deserves retelling. At the elections for the Chancellor of the University of Oxford (1960), Harold Macmillan (the incumbent Prime Minister) was (controversially) standing against Sir Oliver Franks. All Oxford MAs are eligible to vote, but have to do so in person in Oxford. Chern requested permission from Seaman for a day off to take part, but Seaman, being pretty certain that Chern would vote for Franks, said: 'I think I will pair with you.'

During the Suez crisis, he is said to have sent a telegram to Hugh Gaitskell (leader of the Opposition), which read: PULL NO PUNCHES HUGH.

Re: Michael Cherniavsky

Posted: Thu Nov 01, 2012 5:24 pm
by Fitzsadou
I particularly enjoyed Geoffrey Cannon's piece on MT Cherniavsky. Please write more?

I can add that MTC’s father played the viola in one of the last Tsar's orchestras. MTC was educated at Westminster School. By chance there was one other very bright "Russian" boy in his year with a typically Russian name, so they naturally had much in common then, though I do not think they were particularly close after leaving school. That boy was Peter Ustinov (a name perhaps not known to the youngest OBs). During the general election campaign in 1955, MTC attended a Conservative Party meeting in Horsham (a Conservative safe seat, held by Earl Winterton, "father of the House"). He asked a question, probably innocuous (I don't know the precise topic) and argued with Winterton's response. Also in the audience was the Barnes matron, Miss Elizabeth M Watts, as jingoistic and dyed-in-the-wool Tory as one could imagine. She later described his participation, spluttering with indignation, and said that, "He must be a Russian spy". (MTC's politics were left wing Labour, probably unusual amongst Common Room members of the 50s.) On another occasion, a CH discussion group (the Political Discussion Group, or the 1930 Society?) invited a speaker from the League of Empire Loyalists (LEL) to address a meeting. (The LEL’s founder had been a henchman of Oswald Moseley.) Two persons came, one a youngish attractive women. Anyhow MTC was most unhappy, pointing out these were not eccentrics, but dangerous crypto-fascists. I think the LEL disappeared from the UK political scene long ago. Their politics can be understood from their name, after one realises that the Commonwealth was founded in 1949 and the LEL was created in 1954. MTC ended his teaching career in the History Dept of the University of Western Ontario, Canada. There can be very, very few CH schoolteachers who could move effortlessly from CH to a University post. (One other who springs to mind was HLO Flecker’s predecessor, WH Fyfe, who also went to a Canadian University.)

Re: Michael Cherniavsky

Posted: Sat Nov 03, 2012 4:55 pm
by michael scuffil
Fitzsadou wrote:

I think the LEL disappeared from the UK political scene long ago.
MTC ended his teaching career in the History Dept of the University of Western Ontario, Canada.
I once went to a CND meeting in Chelsea Town Hall at which the main speaker was Paul Johnson, the then editor of the New Statesman, who was red of hair and even redder of politics (he is now white of hair and bright blue of politics). The meeting was disrupted by the LEL, until the stewards threw them out. But I was surprised that the leader of this posse didn't die of apoplexy before the stewards came. I've never seen anyone so pathologically worked up at a political meeting.

MTC bemoaned the standard at the university in Canada. Well below CH Grecians, he later said.

Re: Michael Cherniavsky

Posted: Sat Nov 03, 2012 4:58 pm
by michael scuffil
Fitzsadou wrote: (MTC's politics were left wing Labour, probably unusual amongst Common Room members of the 50s.)
Yes. The only other member of the staff I can remember who outed himself as a Labour supporter was Pat Daunt.

Re: Michael Cherniavsky

Posted: Sat Nov 03, 2012 6:35 pm
by LongGone
michael scuffil wrote:
Fitzsadou wrote:

MTC bemoaned the standard at the university in Canada. Well below CH Grecians, he later said.
That is not surprising. At that time the Grecians were routinely expected to win a scholarship to Oxford or Cambridge, which would certainly put them in the top 1 or 2% of the population. I doubt if many universities in any country would be populated entirely by students at that level, making teaching Grecians a virtually unique experience unlikely to be matched.

Re: Michael Cherniavsky

Posted: Sat Nov 03, 2012 8:29 pm
by sejintenej
LongGone wrote:
michael scuffil wrote:
Fitzsadou wrote:

MTC bemoaned the standard at the university in Canada. Well below CH Grecians, he later said.
That is not surprising. At that time the Grecians were routinely expected to win a scholarship to Oxford or Cambridge, which would certainly put them in the top 1 or 2% of the population. I doubt if many universities in any country would be populated entirely by students at that level, making teaching Grecians a virtually unique experience unlikely to be matched.
a fact which, I suspect, was the result of the quality of teaching and the self-discipline enforced in the houses and not because CH simply got the best pupils

Re: Michael Cherniavsky

Posted: Sun Nov 04, 2012 7:30 am
by Fitzsadou
I re-read Geoffrey Cannon’s magnificent first contribution on MT Cherniavsky with increasing admiration and look forward to his next contribution(s). It triggered several further random recollections.

MTC also taught English and in one year (1955?) taught the set Shakespeare set play for O level, which was “The Merchant of Venice”. His teaching was superb, due of course to his ability, so clearly described by others, and also perhaps in part because he was of Jewish origin, but a firm atheist, I understand.

I know that MTC once gave a useful piece of advice to someone, of working class origins, going up to Oxford University in the post WW2 years, to be a member of a college whose undergraduate members included many aristocrats who wasted much money on consuming booze and other such activities. He said, “You are going to be entertained by some of these people. If so, don’t consume their spirits. Stick to beer, or perhaps wine. If you drink their spirits you will feel obliged to entertain them in return in the same way and if you do so, then you will be ruined financially.” In those days the full costs of a year’s study at Oxford was about £400. This was paid by the government and comfortably covered the costs of board, lodging, tuition fees and books, with something to spare. This excellent advice probably derived from MTC’s observation of a poor student contemporary, who came totally unstuck by accepting this sort of entertainment with spirits.

MTC served in the British Army during WW2 in the Pioneer Corps, a sort of ditch digging group. I wonder if it still exists and if anyone can tell us some more about it.

DSR (the Hon David S Roberts) was unusual in being a master who was a non-smoker. I once asked him why and he explained that his late father was somewhat eccentric and an anti-smoker. In order to discourage all his children from becoming smokers he told them that if on their 21st birthday any one of them could promise him that s/he had never tried any tobacco product he would then give him/her £100. This would be in addition to whatever other present(s) they would otherwise receive. However they would be under no obligation to remain non-smokers, but on the next day they could start a habit of 50 a day, if they wished. DSR must have received this offer soon after the start of the 20th Century, for he was about 50 when he recounted it to me in the late 1940s. So £100 was then a considerable sum of money (equivalent today to £8 500, using retail price index increases, or £35 000 using average earnings). DSR thought it would be worth having, so he abstained and claimed his £100. His father was astute and knew very well that most persons start smoking to emulate others and if one has not begun smoking by the age of 21, then one is highly unlikely to do so. (I made to same offer to my children. Only one, the rebel amongst them, was unable to claim. However all now are non-smokers. )

A small correction; Alan Ryan was Warden [Head] of New College, Oxford (not University College). On reaching the compulsory UK retirement age he took up a chair in politics at Princeton University, in the USA (an enlightened nation where ageism allegedly does not exist and where obligatory age related retirement is now unknown). That university clearly knew and valued him, for he had held a chair there before his Oxford post.

In one sense it is not clear that for the election for Chancellor of Oxford University in 1960 MTC would have voted for Sir Oliver Franks, although superficially he was not the establishment candidate. Sir OF was chosen as a candidate by a small group of senior professors, because he was rightly thought to be a most excellent choice. (He had proved himself as a most effective Provost [Head] of Worcester College, Oxford.) A small group of equally senior members of the university objected, not because of Sir OF, whom they readily acknowledged was clearly the best candidate, but because of the lack of any consultation process in selecting him. This they felt was so undemocratic that the only way they could make their point was to find another candidate who would clearly win the election, although he would be a lesser Chancellor. This is why Harold Macmillan was chosen by them. However MTC would possibly (though it’s unlikely) have been swayed by this matter of principle. So he may therefore have wished to prevent a candidate (however worthy) from being foisted on all, without any wide consultation. But MTC’s deep antipathy to the Tory Party most probably would have been the stronger influence. Although Sir OF lost the election it was by a very small margin.

Incidentally can someone tell me which “major intellectual journal” Geoffrey Cannon once edited?

Re: Michael Cherniavsky

Posted: Sun Nov 04, 2012 9:11 pm
by michael scuffil
Geoffrey Cannon edited "The Listener".

As for the elections for the Chancellor of Oxford, certainly Oliver Franks was the establishment candidate; he was, to use a phrase of John Le Carré's,one of nature's prefects. His election was considered a foregone conclusion until Hugh Trevor-Roper started a campaign for Harold Macmillan. This was controversial in itself because HM was the incumbent Prime Minister and many thought the two jobs were incompatible. (It would be barely conceivable today). As a supporter of the Labour Party, Chern would not have liked Macmillan. On principle, he would not have wanted the incumbent PM. And like most historians, he would have detested Hugh Trevor-Roper. So he had three reasons to vote against Macmillan, even though Franks was hardly his candidate.

Hugh Trevor-Roper in due course became Regius Professor (a post in the gift of, guess who?).

Chern was president of the Debating Society, and when the Deb. Soc. won the Observer Mace (in about 1961?), it was solemnly borne ahead of him at every debate in the procession into the Dominions Library, where the debates were held.

Re: Michael Cherniavsky

Posted: Mon Dec 03, 2012 3:36 pm
by Martin
The Chern was certainly, one of the brightest masters at his time in CH and probably the brightest of all. In addition he could inspire his pupils more than most others. He was a nice guy too, yet unafraid of holding very moral, minority opinions, while also being most tolerant and liberal! His first headmaster (H Flecker) thought very highly of him. Just before retiring from CH, the headmaster decided to address the Debating Society. So at its last meeting that term in the Dominions’ Library (surely it doesn’t have that name now, what’s it called today?) Flecker announced he was going to give his “swansong”. The only words from that somewhat self indulgent speech that I remember are, “Now Barnes B is going to be a powerhouse of intellect”, for the Chern had just been appointed its senior housemaster. (He was also the master in charge of debating.)
However after leaving CH for the History Dept of the University of Western Ontario, he seemed to lose much of his intellectual enthusiasm. That thought may explain why his academic output there was very low. Are there any theories why this happened?
The Chern was presumably had independent financial means, for his mother was the daughter of a Canadian sugar baron. If this is so, it was never apparent from his appearance or lifestyle. (See website ... d=46673763 ) That’s yet another point to his credit. A final tiny factual error mentioned in a previous comment; the Chern’s father was a cellist, not a viola player.

Re: Michael Cherniavsky

Posted: Mon Dec 03, 2012 9:00 pm
by michael scuffil
"If this is so, it was never apparent from his appearance or lifestyle."

I know nothing about his lifestyle, but he did dress stylishly and expensively.

"one of the brightest masters at his time in CH and probably the brightest of all"

I agree with the first half. As for the second, I would put him on a par with David Jesson Dibley, Gordon van Praagh, Pat Daunt and David Herbert.

Re: Michael Cherniavsky

Posted: Wed Oct 23, 2013 4:48 pm
by geoffreycannon
What a fine website. Here is some more about Michael Cherniavsky (with thanks for kind words already posted). What’s here is intertwined with thoughts on the period beginning in 1956 when his genius was able to flourish, for more reasons than occurred to me when I began to write. Cometh the times, cometh the people.

More salutations are due to Robert Fyson and the others who masterminded Michael’s 70th birthday year celebration in June 1990. I have done some checking, but those whose lives at CH were within Michael’s period will see errors, omissions and oddities, or see him in different lights. Please correct, add, and chastise!

As mentioned before, I recall that in 1958 CH’s academic ranking among British secondary schools was #1, whereas now it seems to be around #150. Perhaps this contrast is wrong. Certainly, in that year in my first term at Oxford I discovered OId Blues in every male college, which was great for my social life. At Balliol alone in 1958, there were Jasper Griffin, taught by Derrick Macnutt; Clive Jordan, perhaps taught by Edward Malins; and Anthony Arblaster, me, and in the next two years Alan Ryan and Stuart Holland, taught by Michael.

(Yes, I do remember that first names were never used, and some nicknames like ‘Pongo’, ‘the Old Fool’, as in the chant ‘the Old Fool’s father knew Guy de Maupassant’ et seq, ‘Pop B’, ‘Uncle’, ‘Daddy’, ‘the Oil’, ‘the Chain’, and ‘Johnnie’, as in ‘Johnnie’s got a head like a ping-pong ball’ et seq, were apt, but ‘Cherny’ did not work for me).

Any sharp contrast between then and now is not really fair, because in our days the ranking was on the narrow criteria of university places, and the school’s policy was and had been for centuries ruthlessly competitive – Darwinist, as said now. It was focused on boys reckoned as Oxford or Cambridge scholarship material. These elites got their buttons at the expense of the majority in lower sets taught by the least able masters, liable to be ‘discharged’ (slung out) at young ages, in our time 16 or even 15, education abused and careers blighted.

Whereas, to be a Grecian, conspicuous not for sporting but academic prowess, a young lord saying grace in front of the whole school in dining hall from the Grinling Gibbons pulpit facing the vast Restoration painting commissioned by Samuel Pepys, allowed to cycle and walk on grass, wearing coats with 14 big buttons and turned-back velvet cuffs, taught in one-on-one tutorials with most classwork being elective, and affecting an air including in front of masters of having something else more important to do, was to be one of the few selected and elevated in a system defined by the rejection and downfall of the majority. Every year the official photograph of the First Parting pantheon was exhibited in the chapel-side cloisters. Dave Simon, the Senior Grecian in my year, is an old Lord now. No doubt the CH system has become more equitable.

Even so, and allowing for all the ‘things are not what they used to be’ nausea, the middle and late 1950s were a special period. The outstanding masters are mentioned from time to time on this site. They also included David Jesson-Dibley, Gordon van Praagh and David Herbert. We admired and were influenced by them perhaps because of sensing that they also lived in worlds outside.

Great achievements and great people always have contexts, and identifying or asserting these is a purpose of the discipline of history. It’s correctly said that the period of galvanic change in Britain identified as ‘the sixties’ actually began in the 1950s. In 1956, the year Look Back in Anger was staged at the Royal Court, Michael became senior history master and, looking back and forth with enthusiasm, he continued Daddy Roberts’s teaching of mediaeval history. This had academic advantages – read on!

The 1956 moment for me was in Dortmund in July. The occasion was a tour of the Ruhr by the CH Dramatic Society performing Julius Caesar. David Jesson-Dibley was the impresario, in the spirit of his productions for the Regent’s Park open air theatre. I had the smallest part, as the Soothsayer. I was lodged with a family whose mother the evening before had quietly handed me a big book of photographs, which showed the results of the Allied ‘terror’ bombing of Dresden eleven years before, with pictures of the charred bodies of women and children. I knew nothing of this. The next day I was passed in the strasse by a loudspeaker van playing a demo of Elvis Presley’s first 78, his version of ‘Hound Dog’ backed by ‘Don’t be Cruel’, which later that year became a double-sided US #1 and #2 hit. This was all new to me also. It took the UK seven years to catch up: The Beatles ‘From Me to You’ backed by ‘Thank You Girl’, was their first UK #1 hit in 1963. July 1956 was my moment to feel something of the dark past and sense something of the light future. We young people were being moved and were moving from an old into a new era, with all the energy implied and with all the time that it would take. Our circumstances were more significant than we realised then.

In November that year, so the rumour went, Michael went to London to demonstrate in Trafalgar Square against the UK government’s Suez fiasco. If so he was in the crowd that roared applause when Aneurin Bevan declaimed the end of Britain’s pretensions as a Great Power. ‘Sir Anthony Eden has been pretending that he is now invading Egypt in order to strengthen the United Nations. Every burglar of course could say the same thing, he could argue that he was entering the house in order to train the police. So, if Sir Anthony Eden is sincere in what he is saying, and he may be, he may be, then if he is sincere in what he is saying then he is too stupid to be a prime minister’. In my house and no doubt others the valve wireless stayed tuned to the Light Programme, but some of us read newspapers.

Gordon van Praagh, whose ‘chemistry by discovery’ is in the true spirit of education, had a study within Peele A, my house. He checked out our crammed living and working space. At that time all houses, as old Old Blues will remember, included the steaming ‘day room’ for all 52 boys apart from the house captain and his deputy who had tiny studies, in which anybody who needed a bubble of personal space perched on window-ledges, while others played ping-pong, shove ha-penny or snooker, or rummaged in their lockers, or yelled at one another or, in my house, rushed out and then in on timed ‘triangles’ or ‘level-crossings’, the running punishments handed out by monitors for scruffiness or insolence, or for no real reason. In 1956 Gordon masterminded the transfer of a big ground floor changing room upstairs to the dormitory floors, transforming a space crammed with coats and clothes into a ‘quiet room’ with carpet, chairs and big shining table, and a door that could be shut. How he achieved agreement and where the money came from, perhaps nobody now knows.

Michael’s appreciation of our fortnightly essays on aspects of English and European mediaeval history was shown with ‘tick points’. I can hear now how he pronounced ‘tick’, just as I can hear how David Herbert, who was Hon. and the son of a bishop, spoke when he told us that before being a schoolmaster he had written blurbs for Penguin. The name Cherniavsky, the stories that Michael was born in Buenos Aires and that his father played cello for the Czar, were ineffably glamorous.

In those days general schoolwork was not marked; it counted for nothing. Students who were conscientious in class but who seized up when required to do their best for three hours, were trashed. Examination results were all that mattered. Michael trained us as if athletes, to work, to focus, to get to the gist of a narrative (I was never much good at this), and also to know the rules of the game, how to play them, and what you could get away with. It was then even possible to jump from O levels to Oxford or Cambridge scholarship examinations, with no A levels. This is all gone. I loved the arena of examination, which is like public speaking without notes, or as I later found, going for a black run for the first time. True, this was not new for me; I sat my first public examinations at the age of 9 at Ambler Road London County Council elementary school in Finsbury Park, with steel-tipped dip pens, inkwells, dark blue stains on the pad of the right middle finger, and the risk of blots.

I sense the experience now, sitting silent alone at a desk surrounded by many others, handed the history papers with their 48 questions and instructions to answer four of them, seeing maybe seven near the top of the list on the mediaeval period and finding maybe two about which I knew something solid. The thing to do, was not to panic. We were trained to read the list of questions within our period, to sit quiet and breathe deep and do nothing for up to 15 minutes of the 3 hours, except check our fountain pen and its spare with the same ink, trust the brain to work faster than thought, and then – go go go! And as with real high wire acts, style was essential. Italic script, style as learned from Partridge and Fowler, and no crossings-out. That which looked assured, was likely to be seen as accomplished.

There was another trick that Michael got us to understand, though he never spoke of it. I have mentioned this before. These days I understand that examiners of a paper require answers to a number of questions, each marked out of a fraction of the total of 100 per cent. In our day, the Oxford and Cambridge method was different. It gave Greek marks, for the whole paper. The system now is mechanical, it can only give one number. The method by which we were judged gave more scope for the examiner’s judgement as well as to the candidate’s enterprise, and still seems superior to me. It could result in a paper being marked not just alpha or beta, but more likely, something like alpha minus query minus, or even beta double plus query alpha. (Or lower combinations, including the dreaded gamma).

Thus, if we wrote just two solid reasoned knowledgeable answers with copious references and quotes from the set texts, ideally including from books and papers written by the examiner and his chums, plus a third short flight of fancy, and maybe a deliberately oblique fourth squib ingeniously importing sexy knowledge signalled as not really answering the question, this could make an otherwise bored examiner happy. Bingo! This use of the human factor would achieve the crucial alpha quality, maybe with a query or a minus, but alpha all the same – scholarship level. Whereas this approach now would force an examiner to mark the paper say at 20+18+12+7 = 57 per cent – certain failure.

A benefit of mediaeval history is that sometimes the known facts run out, and any plausible speculative hypothesis, even one a don had never heard of, was as good as any other – just as long as you showed him that you could give solid answers too. There were different ways to score alpha.

The Oxford history scholarship also included ‘general’ and ‘essay’ papers. While you had to know your basic stuff, these were just as important as the history papers. They also required skill in plausible phrasing and quick judgements, sensing how to push an argument close to but not over an edge, and some flaunting of special knowledge, of which the choices discreetly encouraged by Michael included linguistic philosophy and freethinking politics, personified by Bertrand Russell.

Such flirting with controversy disturbed CME Seaman, successor in 1955 as headmaster to the fabulous Oswald ‘the Oil’ Flecker. Clarence (or ‘George’) Seaman was conventional and methodical, and following the tradition, taught the compulsory subject of Divinity to the final year Grecians, in his case out of a puny Penguin primer, which we despised. Well, I did, and I said so in his classes. As a militant atheist I was interested in religion and every year came top in Div exams, only to be told annually by the chaplain, Rev ‘the Chain’ Pullen, that unfortunately there was no money for a prize that year. Seaman was however a man of conscience, and he awarded me the Divinity prize, which my bolshie buddies thought was hilarious. This put me on my mettle. We were allowed to make our own choice of books, and so ‘Christ’s Hospital. From the Gift of George Moore Esq, a Governor of the Hospital 1849-1876, A Prize, intended as an encouragement to the knowledge of the Holy Scriptures’ is the bookplate of the book I chose, The Theory and Practice of Communism by RN Carew Hunt. It was, I now realise with a guilty twinge, just as well that Michael’s history Grecians achieved Oxford scholarships. Seaman felt that a nest of vipers was writhing within ‘his’ school. So they were, and not just because of atheism and communism, but that is another story...

Given the depth of his learning and the breadth of his culture, it’s striking that Michael himself published nothing substantial. His self-styled and -published ‘Short Pieces’ are pleasant cautious whimsical notes mostly of homage to the places where he taught. Nor was he a stylist – but scintillating prose, like playing the cello to concert standard, comes only with constant daily practice.

Four reasons for his virtual silence occur to me. First, academic publication was and is largely controlled by dons at leading universities and their networks in the specialist publishing trade. Second, the free-thinking cosmopolitan side of Michael was inhibited by his English upbringing and training and by the then general revulsion against big-picture political, philosophical, economic and cultural ideas, commonly felt to have spawned totalitarianism. The other reasons are simpler. Third, Michael was self-effacing. And fourth, he did not have the time. He was a teacher, and also at CH was Barnes B housemaster. He expressed himself through those he trained and nurtured. In his mid 40s he removed to the Canadian side of his life, teaching at the University of Waterloo near Toronto, but after retirement he returned, to spend his final years in the neighbourhood and ambience of CH. At our leaving services in the vast chapel we were all charged to ‘Never forget the great benefits you have received in this place’. The Oil spoke these words beautifully.

Michael always remembered. He came back. He gave his Grecians all the benefits in his gift – as benevolent mediaeval kings and bishops did, it now occurs to me. These involved craft. He inveigled Oxford Fellows who were part of his network to be our external examiners. And while it was obviously rather bizarre to be teaching and learning mediaeval history – although perhaps no more than specialising in Latin and Greek – this gave candidates an advantage when they were applying to colleges whose Fellows included mediaevalists who needed to stop the subject, and their tenure, being taken over by teachers and students of ‘modern’ history. They needed us!

Michael rescued me from disaster as a candidate. Here is how. First I have to give a bit of background. My father was interested in mediaeval mythology. The period of some of the books he owned, including on ‘witchcraft’, anathema to conventional scholars, was within that of Michael’s curriculum. One of my special interests was the Crusades, especially the Fourth, that travesty of the original ideal, fought for loot and power. I also became fascinated by the Albigensian ‘Crusade’, which was either an extermination of the Cathar heresy, or the obliteration of the Languedoc powerbase and culture, depending on your view.

But there is a third explanation. This is that the pre-Christian religions survived, not as recorded in the contemporary histories mostly written by monks on which almost all generally accepted history books were then largely based. But the old gods and images were there all the same, in the iconography of cathedrals (gargoyles, for instance), in folk pursuits (such as harvest festivals), in healing (as practiced by ‘wise women’), and in the female principle (transmuted into Mariolatry). The clues are there to be noticed, and you find what you look for. Hard to say whether or not these practices were sometimes consciously pagan, at a time when anybody identified as following the old religion in the later Middle Ages was liable to be racked, broken and burned. The theory goes on to propose that the Albigensian ‘Crusade’ and the later ‘witch trials’ were a deliberate and systematic purging by the Church of the pre-Christian faiths, whose records were destroyed or hidden, much as happened in Mesoamerica to the Incan and Mayan philosophies.

In the 1957 summer holidays before I sat the Balliol scholarship examination, I chose as my topic for my final essay for Michael, Joan of Arc’s religion, and larded it with quotes from more books I acquired from Watkins, the shop of the esoteric and occult in Cecil Court, off Charing Cross Road. Michael gave the essay a record 14 tick points, and 7 queries. I ended with ‘I believe that Joan of Arc was consciously a pagan [and] that she, as Williiam Rufus and probably Thomas Becket before her, died a ritual death’. Michael’s comment – as always in meticulous small neat pencil – was ‘I don’t know enough about the subject to be in a position to make any constructive criticism, but’ (referring to my saying that even if my conclusion was wrong, it was plausible in the circumstances of the time) ‘you seem to have proved this point’. His mark was alpha double minus – very high for him, and if sustained, first class honours level.

I now come to the point. Our tutorial was in his Barnes B study. He put my exercise book on one side, offered me a complicit sherry, and became my advisor. I forget his words but remember their meaning, which was ‘you have one of two choices, which is either to pursue these intriguing lines of enquiry, or to get your scholarship. You cannot have both’. His quiet tone gave me the space to realise that this stuff was outlaw, over the top, over the edge, into an abyss. What I did not know at the time, was that the eminent mediaevalist Richard Southern, Michael’s own tutor at Balliol, by my time a very eminent Balliol Fellow, probably would read the papers of the few candidates specialising in mediaeval history, and professionally and personally was a devoted churchman (1). Michael was discreet, it was not his way to explain such things. This is how I avoided my bosh being binned, and maybe ending up as a municipal clerk of works in Nuneaton, or who knows.

It occurs to me now as I wrote this, that Michael spread out his three candidates of the same age for Balliol scholarships: me first, as the meteor, liable to fall to earth (or as it turned out, to popular journalism); then the next year Alan Ryan as the most likely to achieve academic eminence, which he did eventually as Warden of New College; then the year after Stuart Holland, who not so long after Oxford became a leading democratic socialist thinker and Labour member of parliament.

In the 1950s Britain shifted from one era to another. The ferment was the context of creativity in selected pupils in privileged schools, and the rising generation from all classes. But this does not explain why Christ’s Hospital did so well academically at that time. The school’s special features – its grand solid buildings, its vast grounds, its ancient dress – were all in place before, and all remain, although other features do not, now that it is co-educational with fewer places for pupils with impoverished parents and so no longer indefensibly monastic. Its success in that period over half a century ago was because the context of the mid and late 1950s enabled the flowering of a group of masters who happened to be at Christ’s Hospital, among whom was Michael Cherniavsky, whose surviving Grecians surely remember him with that combination of admiration and affection which is a form of love.

Michael’s spirit touched and even permeated the spirits of his students. It still does. I have been thinking about this. People in my life have told me that I can sympathise with various points of view, which is good, but to the point of not showing what I myself think, which makes trouble. Also, I am ever more certain that things are rarely what they seem. In all matters, public and private, there are accepted narratives and also hidden stories. While all the time we judge what is ‘true’, and need to do so, we never really know. Indeed, what is ‘truth’? For example, will Sy Hersh ever tell us what he means when he says that the US government story about the death of Osama bin Laden is ‘one big lie, not one word of it is true’? And how would he know, anyway? On so many matters of public and private life, where is the firm ground? You will have your own examples. For me these qualities and these doubts come from the experience of CH in my time, and from Michael also. If you knew Michael, perhaps you can say here how you feel he influenced you.

A task of the historian is to discern patterns in the past that may affect or inspire the future We need to understand what has happened, in order to perceive what is happening and what may happen. Because nothing is finally certain, this involves the need to judge. It is only then that we have any chance to shape circumstances. History matters. Michael certainly taught me that. George Santayana rightly said ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ (Does this so well-known quote earn me a tick point, Michael?). In my own work, discerning the close analogy between the current ideology that has unleashed transnational corporations, and the early laissez faire ideology that created the monstrous East and West India Companies, is helpful – though so far not hopeful, I must say.

(1) Norman Cantor’s masterpiece, The Making of the Middle Ages, has a chapter on
Richard Southern.

Re: Michael Cherniavsky

Posted: Wed Oct 23, 2013 6:58 pm
by geoffreycannon
PS Some of my latest post repeats bits in my first post of last year. I should have mentioned this, plus my repenting of the use of 'Cherny'.

Michael (Scuffil) you said I edited The Listener. Not quite. I designed The Spectator for Nigel Lawson, and then The Listener for Karl Miller, and then went on to edit Radio Times. which I did throughout the 1970s.

Martin wonders why Michael never published anything substantial and I have tried to answer that.

There is a mistake in my first post. I reckoned that in my time Oxford history dons loved epic writing, and gave the example of Ernst Kantorowicz's staggering biography of Frederick II 'Stupor Mundi' Hohenstaufen. Wrong! This book was in the superbly stocked History Grecians room that Michael inherited from Daddy Roberts. The room, facing the back of one side of Big School, was next to the Chaplain's classroom, which we enjoyed. Little did the Chain know what we got up to! I see now that Michael did set me an essay on 'Why did Frederick II astonish his contemporaries?', and he give it 20 ticks and 4 queries, but what I felt was a mean-minded beta plus query plus, with the comment 'Material not pointed to the question', which was not true. I have a feeling that it was me who, browsing the shelves, found the book and enthused about its power, style, and vision, and that left to himself, Michael would not have set me that essay.

The point here is that Michael would have known that Richard Southern, his tutor at Balliol who had become the pre-eminent Balliol History Fellow in the late 1950s. despised Kantorowicz as an historian, and hated his thesis (1) as I feel sure Michael did, too. The academic-type reason was the British and North American insistence on the inductive method, staying with the facts, all that tedium. There was a bigger reason also. The history of Frederick Hohenstaufen as evoked by Kantorowicz was enormously influential in his own country of Germany in the 1930s, because along with the legend of the Germanic Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, it became part of the myth-making of the National Socialist (Nazi) party and government, with Adolf Hitler as the new Wonder of the World, the superman who would regenerate Greater Germany as the dominant European power. Both Richard Southern and Michael had been engaged in the 1939-1945 war, and for me Michael's best 'Short Piece', written in 1945 when he was 25, described and meditated on the ruins of Berlin.

In England, to celebrate or glorify Frederick II in the next decade after that war in an attempt to achieve academic promotion, would be - well, let's see, it would be like writing an examination paper whose thesis was that Churchill was a bungling warmonger who should have trusted and accepted Hitler's terms for peace after the Fuhrer allowed the British Expeditionary Force to escape from Dunkirk. In such matters timing is important. Michael never said 'don't read Nietzsche and don't listen to Wagner', because he was smart as well as tolerant. But he did his best to keep us on the rails that led to the dreaming spires. He set the texts and he had a good idea what examination questions we would be asked.

Decades later I came across Frederick in a free-wheeling epidemiological paper. He was a man of vast curiosity. The legend is that he conducted one of the first clinical trials. He put Francis of Assisi in a prison cell (so far this is perfectly possible, the two men knew one another), and then also put two whores into the cell, and waited. The experiment was to check the holy man's chastity. Would the member rise? The results are not known. Perhaps the scribes agreed that more research was needed.

(1) Again, see Norman Cantor, Inventing the Middle Ages.

Re: Michael Cherniavsky

Posted: Thu Oct 24, 2013 3:17 pm
by DavidRawlins
michael scuffil wrote:
Fitzsadou wrote: (MTC's politics were left wing Labour, probably unusual amongst Common Room members of the 50s.)
Yes. The only other member of the staff I can remember who outed himself as a Labour supporter was Pat Daunt.
I heard that Flecker was a Labour supporter (though not a member of the Common Room). I think he was sent to the West Indies by a Labour government, to look into education there.

Re: Michael Cherniavsky

Posted: Fri Oct 25, 2013 2:36 pm
by Richard
As a newcomer to this (frankly mainly inconsequential) Forum, I was more than delighted to read the intelligent, informative and thought provoking postings on Cherny. There is little that I can add. However I hope that many more Blues will be inspired to contribute in a similar fashion. There are masters in addition to Cherny who deserve such study in depth.

I believe that CH obtained 15 Oxbridge awards in 1957, which certainly contributed to the No. 1 UK school rating mentioned by Geoffrey Cannon, a record at that time and highly unlikely to have been bettered since. With so many non-Oxbridge universities now seeking seeking students, there is virtually no chance of that record ever being equalled. However apart from the superb teaching of the 50s contributing greatly, there were other factors. The LCC scholarships then provided many pupils who were destined for great things. (What a loss for CH when they were discontinued for socio/political reasons.) Also a statistical fluctuation must have also been another reason for that period to have been so fruitful.

GC mentioned G Van Praagh and his chemistry teaching, but W Armistead was another whose excellent teaching should also be recognised. He had fewer pupils than others mentioned, perhaps because of his somewhat retiring nature. Similarly T Archbold is highly esteemed by former pupils. Others should be encouraged to write about these unusual masters.